swinley forest golf club - 18 POINTS
I am really very fortunate. Every year I am able to take a couple of golf trips to fantastic places and I take huge pleasure in planning these trips. I have seen and played many great courses but I could count on two hands the number of courses which are truly magical. These are the courses where you can’t help grinning all the way around and, as soon as you’re finished, you want to go straight back out and play them again. If you could only play one course again for the rest of your days, these courses would be right at the top of the list. Swinley Forest, without any doubt at all, is such a course. It’s simply a thing of beauty and wonder.
For many years Swinley Forest was shrouded in secrecy and had almost mythical status in the world of golf. It was designed by Harry Colt while he was Secretary at Sunningdale and opened in 1909. Famously, Colt describes it as his ‘least bad’ work. Oh, to be so modest! The club was a bastion of the English upper classes and it was to become one of the most exclusive clubs anywhere in the country.
I really hope that this story from Planet Golf about the founding of Swinley Forest is true, ‘It was formed by Lord Derby, a minister of the crown during the reign of Queen Victoria, who was once late for an appointment with Her Majesty at Windsor Castle after being held up by a slow foursome at Sunningdale. When the Queen enquired as to why a man of such means could not own his own course, Lord Derby responded by forming an exclusive club and handing Colt, who was still serving as Secretary at Sunningdale, a piece of land he had purchased within the greater Swinley Forest for the building of his new course’.
If you dig a little into Swinley’s history you will hear that measuring devices weren’t allowed and there were no pars on the course until relatively recently. This is only partly true. Scorecards adorn the walls showing holes were measured but they were not given a traditional par, rather a ‘Bogey’ score. This was the score a fictional man called ‘Colonel Bogey’ would score on any given hole. He was a player who was straight off the tee and consistent but only average in his length. For decades at Swinley the bogey card was used and it was only in the 1990s that they took a more conventional approach.
The course isn’t long. It measures just 5,900 yards from the white medal tees (although longer purple tees have now been installed) and it is a par 69. This course is made up of 2 par 5s, 11 par 4s and 5 par 3s which means it doesn’t feel like a short course when you are playing. However, unlike West Sussex (another course with a sub 70 par) the course doesn’t feel particularly long either. There is great variety in the par 3s and 4s but you never feel like you are facing a brute.
The playability of the course is the thing that really shone out for me. For some reason, I had expected the ‘forest’ to impinge and for the course to be tight. In reality, this isn’t the case at all. The magnificent pines are almost always in view but they sit well back from the holes and act more as a backdrop than hazard. There is plenty of heather on the course but, again, it sits away from the fairways in most cases and there are few carries to worry the average golfer. Sunningdale New this is not.
Like many Colt courses it starts relatively benignly with a wide fairway on an approachable par 4, but by the 4th you know you’re in for something really special with a 200 yard Redan thrown in. You will read everywhere that the par 3s on this course are truly exceptional; I have heard them called some of the best in the UK. I would have to agree. Four of the five are over 170 yards and the green complexes and bunkering are fantastic, especially on the 17th where a long iron needs to find the heart of the green or the ball will fall off to the deep bunkering on the left, into the cavernous drop on the right or back down the front where another attempt to get up the steep slope will be facing you.
But this isn’t just a course with good set of par 3s. There is so much else to love. The greens were wonderfully designed on every hole - here were few straight putts but none that felt ridiculous and they were running beautifully true when we were there, though not so fast that we couldn’t attack the holes.
I am a sucker for a good short par 4 and the 10th was a great example. Such a benign yardage at under 280 yards, and yet this was the only horror on my card. The ball was gobbled up by the swathes of heather on the right and the combination of that and the fairway proved to much for me. But I didn’t feel I had received anything but my just deserts.
Playing this course I always felt I was well treated - it was totally fair at all times. This is a classic example of a course you can enjoy whatever your handicap. Some courses require you to consistently carry the ball 230 yards to get the it in play and for most of us that’s not going to happen. The complexity of the holes here regularly comes at the greens with some wonderful bunkering, intricate run-offs and undulations. While that will undoubtedly separate the strong players from the weak, it does so without humiliating anyone too early or punishing them too brutally.
This was a very, very special golf course and one that will live with me forever. The club was friendly, there was no pretension and while it is fairly clear you are only a guest for the day and a visitor to the club, you will be welcomed warmly. This is a course that deserves to be seen by many, and will be celebrated by all who experience it. If there was only one course in England I would urge you to play, Swinley Forest would be it!
BOOKING THE COURSE
For many years, how to get a tee time at Swinley was shrouded in rumour and mystery. But no more. A new secretary, in role for a few years now, has decided to open the course for some visitor play. I emailed them (firstname.lastname@example.org) and a couple of days later received a reply that read ‘We have very limited availability for visitors with tee times restricted to after 11am Monday-Friday (excluding Bank Holidays). The green fee will be £195 per player’.
From a flick through the visitor book, visitor play is relatively light - I imagine the members don’t want the course to be overrun - so I would suggest booking well in advance.
Swinley Forest is very close to two other immense English courses - Sunningdale Old and New. Both of these early 20th Century courses are essential to a golf trip in the area. And you are spoilt for choice for other courses to add. West Sussex is another top 100 course about an hour’s drive away and is well worth a visit. Closer by, St George’s Hill is probably the standout choice - one I still have to play but which comes very highly recommended.
Walton Heath is within half an hour. It was a good enough course but didn’t quite make the high standard of any of the aforementioned. The ‘3 Ws’ of West Hill, Woking and Worplesdon are probably slightly less challenging courses but also come highly recommended. Woking is a particularly well regarded course - the architect Tom Simpson said he would choose this as the course he would play for the rest of his life if he were ever to be restricted to one choice.
You can read more about options for where to stay in my Sunningdale review but remember, with a little planning, it is perfectly possible to visit Swinley Forest as a day trip from Central London.
As for the clubhouse and course setup, you will certainly get a warm welcome. However, if you are an unaccompanied visitor then you will use the changing room by the pro-shop - the other side of a courtyard from the main clubhouse. And, indeed, should you require a visit to the gents or ladies when in the bar you will need to make your way back there! The food in the bar was excellent (crab, avocado and a poached egg on a potato gratin for breakfast was very welcome) and there’s unlimited tea and coffee for guests. What more can you ask for!?
Swinley Forest Golf Club
Ascot SL5 9LE
Phone: +44 (0) 1344 620197